Thursday, May 7, 2015

Operation Protective Edge and the Israel Defense Forces Testimonies

Several days ago, the Israeli NGO Breaking the Silence, which takes testimonies from IDF soldiers, published a booklet of over sixty testimonies of soldiers involved in Operation “Protective Edge”, the Gaza Op of last summer. The report has been overshadowed by other news from Israel, and aside from a long (and good) report in the Washington Post and some other major newspapers, and a fine opinion piece by Elisheva Goldberg in the Forward, it has faded fairly quickly in the US news cycle. This indifference is in sharp contrast to the reaction that greeted its revelations of IDF war crimes in Occupation Cast Lead.

Part of this indifference is due to the fact that many of the testimonies describe policies and actions that were publicized widely  last summer. We had enough evidence last summer that Israel’s operation in Gaza intended not so much to stop Hamas rocket fire as to “mow the lawn”, i.e., to deplete Hamas arsenals, to punish Gaza collectively for its support of Hamas, to seek revenge for the humiliation of the IDF by Hamas fighters, and to show the Israeli public that the government was doing something after the kidnap/slaying of the three Israelis on the West Bank.  As the operation dragged on the harshness of the response increased. Israel had pretty much free rein to do what it wanted. Feeling humiliated by the kidnappings and the rockets, which it was unable to stop, it unleashed its fury.

Another part of the indifference is due to the fact that the world has become inured to these periodic eruptions.  Israel is neither condemned nor condoned; it is simply ignored. And Israel has also learned how to ignore these testimonies, barely taking the trouble to reply, unlike the testimonies that followed Cast Lead, which occasioned a huge push back from IDF spokesman Avi Benayahu and the IDF. The IDF spokesperson can be counted on to repeat their talking points, whether it believes them or not. This time it repeated the mantra that the organization should have contacted it with the testimonies, and it turns out that Breaking the Silence did just that.

Nevertheless, the testimonies are extremely important for three reasons:

First, they are first-hand testimonies that will be of great use to future historians and unbiased observers.  Some people who are unfamiliar with Breaking the Silence assume that those who give testimony oppose the military’s operations. Of course, there are those. But just read the testimonies, and you will see that they include soldiers who justify what was done, or at least those who think that Israel could not have acted differently. These are extraordinarily detailed and moving testimonies. After the BtS’s publication of thousands of testimonies, not one has been shown to be fabricated or distorted.

Second, the testimonies show that the IDF’s  violations of the Laws of War were not uniform, that they changed in the course of the operation, depending upon a variety of circumstances. The idea that violations of the laws of war are inevitable in urban context is simply false.  Israel behaved badly, but at times it behaved much more worse than at others.  And with each operation in Gaza it sinks lower and lower into a moral morass – and sinking with it are the apologists for evil among the supporters of Israel.

Third, and most important, the number of testimonies testify  to a pattern of willful and deliberate reinterpretation of the Laws of War that weakens its two main principles: the principle of discrimination (i.e., distinguishing  between civilians and soldiers), and the principle of proportionality (i.e, making the force exercised proportionate to the legitimate military goal).  What is interesting about this reinterpretation is that it differs from the call to change the laws of war for the “war on terror”.  The adoption by the IDF of the Asa Kasher/Amos Yadlin theory that says minimum risk to our soldiers, increased risk for the enemy’s civilians, has nothing to do with asymmetric warfare; it basically says that wars are fought between peoples and not between armies, and hence, almost anything goes.

And, as pointed out by others, it works both ways. That is, if Israeli soldiers should be considered as civilians because they  are reservists, then Israelis civilians should be considered as soldiers for the same reasons.  That could justify Hamas kidnapping and killing Israeli civilians if they feel it necessary to free their soldiers – since the rule is “our soldiers trump your civilians”.

In the coming week I plan to make available some of these testimonies, which are much more powerful and eloquent than anything I could write.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Is Service Learning in Israel “Tikun Olam-Washing”?

Dr. Max Klau and Rabbi Sid Schwartz (a rabbi for whom I have enormous respect)  have written an article arguing that young progressive Jews that are alienated from Israel can become connected via service learning programs, like those run by an organization called Yahel.  These are programs that bring young people to Israel who do volunteer work with mizrahim, Ethiopians, Druze, etc.  According to the authors, the Yahel experience is

an experience that provides a realistic, complex and nuanced understanding of a country that is talked about largely in the abstract during polarized debates back on college campuses in the States. And along with that nuanced and complex understanding emerges a genuine sense of connection.

The authors follow the story of “Jennifer,” who was raised in a home that “equated Zionism with racism. Like many secular, progressive young  Americans, she spent her college years immersed in a campus culture that, at best, questioned the current policies of the state of Israel and, at worst, demonized the country as a pariah state.” But after working with Ethiopians in the Ramat Eliyahu neighborhood of Rishon Le-Tziyyon, “Jennifer” feels much more connected to Israel

“Through her service, she is encountering issues of race, gender, economic justice, immigration, and  – of course – the conflict with Palestinians – as they are experienced every day in Ramat Eliyahu and beyond.”

Yes, she is – and that is the problem. Because in the Ramat Eliyahu neighborhood of Rishon, she will never observe the daily lives of Palestinians under Israeli control. She will not encounter Palestinians, except in terms of the “conflict”. Jennifer will learn more about what it is to live under Occupation by attending campus meetings of Students for Justice in Palestine and J Street U in the United States,  than she will in an Israeli town that gave thirty per cent of its vote to the Likud, and almost as many votes to the racist Yahad party as to Meretz (3%). She will be closer to the West Bank experience in Ann Arbor than she will be in Rishon.

A look at Yahel’s website shows that none of the programs work with Palestinian Israelis, much less Palestinians under occupation.  This is social justice “within the family”.  It is not social justice for the most underprivileged group of Israeli citizens, Palestinian Israelis.

Of course, working with all underprivileged is important, and I am the first to applaud Yahel and other programs for doing that.  I am not for dissing social justice programs of any sort; just as justice should be blind, so too social justice.

But service learning programs in Israel will not further young progressive students’ understanding of the core human rights/social justice issue in Israel today – the treatment of the Palestinians under Occupation. To me, it’s like telling college students  during the civil rights era, “Don’t demonize the South; go and tutor its poor white children.”

Israel is constantly thinking of way to engage liberal Jews in order to divert their attention from the elephant in  the room.  Progressive Jews have an obligation to see what is being done in their name in Areas B and C.  If they can’t visit Gaza, they should learn about the lives of Gazans, who remain under Israel’s effective control. 

Service learning should not be “tikun olam washing” – a way of connecting with progressives while sweeping under the carpet the central problem facing Israel – and its supporters today.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

It’s Time for Liberal Zionists to Support Some Sticks against the Netanyahu Government

Liberal Zionists don’t like the global BDS movement, but they also think that the Obama administration should get tough with the Netanyahu government. Josh Ruebner, the Policy Director of the US Campaign to End the Occupation, wrote a good piece in The Hill which shows some of the concrete steps the Obama administration can take if it is serious about is reassessment.

1. Clog the arms pipeline. Even though Congress will appropriate more military aid for Israel in this year's budget, there is a myriad of ways in which the Defense and State Departments can delay, if not completely suspend, the signing of contracts and the actual delivery of weapons.

2. Report on Israel's violations of the Arms Export Control Act (AECA). Under the AECA, countries receiving U.S. military aid can only use weapons for legitimate self-defense and internal security. Israel killed more than 2,200 Palestinians — the vast majority of whom were civilians — last summer, oftentimes with U.S. weapons such as F-16 fighter jets and Hellfire missiles. The Obama administration should send a report to Congress documenting these human rights abuses and suspend future deliveries of specific weapons systems as outlined in the AECA.

3. Sanction Israel under the "Leahy Law." Under the Leahy Law, specific units of militaries which commit human rights abuses are ineligible to receive U.S. training and weapons. In addition, individuals who commit human rights abuses are denied U.S. visas. While there is some evidence that high-ranking Israeli military officials have recently been denied U.S. visas, the State Department's reporting on the implementation of Leahy Law sanctions is opaque. More extensive and public sanctioning of Israel under this law is warranted.

4. Declare Israeli settlements a national emergency. Under the National Emergencies Act, the president has broad and unilateral powers to declare an emergency in response to a foreign policy crisis. By designating Israeli settlements as an emergency, the Obama administration could regulate, or even prohibit, any transaction in foreign exchange that will directly or indirectly contribute to the expansion of Israeli settlements.

5. Shut down "charitable" funding of Israeli settlements. Dozens of organizations currently recognized by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) as 501(c)(3) nonprofits funnel tens of millions of dollars to Israeli settlements every year. There is nothing charitable about dispossessing Palestinians from their land. IRS guidelines do not allow for the funding of illegal activities, which Israeli settlements are according to U.S. policy and international law.

Ruebner, adds, “after more than six years of offering Israel more and more carrots only to be repeatedly snubbed, it is long overdue for the Obama administration to brandish the proverbial stick.”

Now it seems to me that liberal Zionists who want to preserve the State of Israel as “Jewish and democratic” should be interested in supporting some of these methods, none of which would hurt Israel in the manner that  serious state sanctions would. They would certainly be more effective  than the boutique tokenism of not buying Hebron wines from merchants on the Upper West Side.

Can some of our prominent liberal Zionists, academicians who claim to be in favor of a Third Way, who don’t like what they (wrongly) see is a one-state bias of the global BDS movement, articulate ways to pressure Israel? Or will we be witness to even more liberal Zionist handwringing, teeth-gnashing, and liberal pieties about an illusionary “peace process”?

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Hillel’s Betrayal of Its Own Principles: Targeting Jewish Students at Swarthmore

In 1992, Bnai Brith International Corporation registered with the US Patent and Trademark Office the name “Hillel” to designate “association services; namely, promoting the interests of members of the Jewish religion through religious, career and vocational counseling programs, sporting events and social programs, and by providing information on issues concerning human rights and inter-faith relations.”

Twenty-three years later, the Swarthmore College Hillel, which has declared itself an Open Hillel because it won’t accept Hillel International’s political guidelines on Israel,  is sponsoring a program with Jewish civil rights veterans who criticize Israel’s human rights record called “From Mississippi to Jerusalem: In Conversations with Jewish Civil Rights Veterans.”  In response, International Hillel’s legal counsel has cautioned Swarthmore that it will take action to protect its trademark if the program is under the Hillel name. As a result, the Swarthmore Hillel is being forced to change its name. Read about it here.

International Hillel has misrepresented Open Hillel as a group that promotes an anti-Israel and BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel) agenda. In fact, Open Hillel only wishes to give a forum to speakers who do not pass the International Hillel Israel loyalty test. As an organization it doesn’t itself promote BDS, much less an anti-Israel agenda.  Just go to their website and see for yourself.

The evolution of  Hillel  from an organization that, inter alia, provides information on human rights to Jewish students,  to an organization that suppresses such information when it comes to Israel,  has been well-told by John Judis in the New Republic.

Hillel’s stance toward Israel began to change in 2002 in response to donor generosity and the onset of the Second Intifada. That year, using a donation from the Schusterman Foundation, a significant funder of AIPAC and of the campus watchdog David Project, Hillel started the Israel on Campus Coalition. Its motto was “Wherever we stand, we stand with Israel.” In 2010, the director of the Israel on Campus Coalition, Wayne Firestone, a suburban D.C. lawyer, became the head of Hillel, and instituted explicit political guidelines for Hillel chapters to follow in sponsoring speakers and partnering with organizations, which included co-sponsoring events and allowing events to be held in Hillel buildings.

Former presidents of Hillel International like Richard Joel and Avraham Infeld were no less pro-Israel than Mr. Firestone and current president Eric Fingerhut,  but a lot more sensitive to different constituencies within the Jewish community.  Mr. Firestone and Mr. Fingerhut tend to identify being Jewish with being pro-Israel (Mr. Fingerhut is described in his official Hillel bio as “an active member of Ohio’s Jewish and pro-Israel community,” as if the two are coextensive). For some pro-Israel Jews,  to wish to boycott or place sanctions on Israel in order to stop Israel’s human rights abuses is tantamount to anti-Semitism and has no place at Hillel.

Recently, Mr. Fingerhut cancelled his appearance at the J Street conference because a Palestinian speaker was on the program.  The message to students: listening to representative Palestinian spokespeople is against the spirit of Hillel. (For the response of Benjy Cannon, the President of J Street U National Board, see here.  Full disclosure: Benjy was my student, and I am the faculty advisor for J Street U at UMD.)

And what are Jewish students to make of this? Even if you are deeply opposed to the BDS movement, does it make any sense in the world to throw Jewish critics of the policies of Israel – not of this or that Israeli government, but of the state  – out of Hillel, or to demand that they keep their mouths shut in order to enter Hillel?  Who is International Hillel  to decide who is a Jew and what is a legitimate Jewish opinion? If Maryland Hillel, one of the best Hillels in the country, invites the Director of Jewish Studies at the University of Maryland, a former Hillel board member and donor, to speak – will it be sued by International Hillel for trademark infringement? Ribono shel olam, have we come to this?

In a letter to Swarthmore Open Hillel’s Joshua Wolfsun, Eric Fingerhut wrote, “Rabbi Hillel is perhaps more famous for his saying in Pirkei Avot, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” What Mr. Fingerhut perhaps does not know is that  Hillel’s saying immediately continues “And when I am for myself, what am I?” Am I an egoist only looking out for my own tribe? Or am I a mentsh, who looks out for the welfare of all human beings created in the image of God. After all, when asked to summarize the entire Torah while standing on one foot, Hillel said,

What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.

That is Hillel’s most famous statement, the Golden Rule, the  foundational statement for the very human rights discussion that Swarthmore Open Hillel wants to have. And  International Hillel sees this human rights discussion  as  contrary to Hillel’s mission! It is the very essence of Hillel’s mission.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Right Wing Nation

Update, March 18, morning, Jerusalem:

Israel is a Right Wing Nation. What is “center” in Israel is right in the rest of the world. What is “right” is extreme right is, well, you fill in that one. Even had Herzog evened the score with Netanyahu he would not have been able to create an alternative government. That has been clear from the beginning. 

There is a progressive, liberal, civil rights movement in Israel; indeed the third largest list in the Knesset will be what journalist Haim Baram calls the “consistent left”.  Congratulations to the Joint List; mabruk; this is the list I voted for.  But because that left  is predominantly Arab, it will never be invited by the Israeli Jewish parties to coalition negotiations. It appears that Meretz, the Jewish nationalist Left, will also be in the Knesset; good for them. But their numbers are small, and the soldiers’ votes might actually kick them out. They are also now part of a permanent opposition.

Whether there is a narrow rightwing government, or a centrist-rightwing unity government (I prefer the former), liberal and progressive Jews and non-Jews will have to continue to question  their relationship to the State of Israel. This is not a state that is presided over by a unpopular tyrant. This is a state run by a very popular Jewish bigot, who gets elected by telling his supporters that there will be no Palestinian state, and that they must get out and vote in order to stop the Arab citizens of Israel “who are voting in droves.”

“This is your god, O Israel” Aaron said to the Israelites, as they worshipped the golden calf of bigotry, deceit, and self-centeredness.

Today it will be it a little easier for liberals to distance themselves further from a country with which they cannot identify. Tonight, it will be a little easier for them to identify with the Palestinian Israelis, who are fighting for their civil rights just as the Jews fought such for such rights in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Today, the big winner of this election are the Palestinian people, who will press ahead for statehood, who have shown how, even after ethnic cleansing, they are a force to be reckoned with. The global Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement will take off, and more progressives and centrists will support.

As for the Jews, how does the Hebrew song go? We survived Pharoah; we will survive this as well.

Hope and Change–How Israel Maybe Took a Step Today Towards Being Democratic and Jewish

Israel is not a liberal democracy that supports the flourishing of its citizenry.  In fact, it is not a democracy, since democracy requires consent of the governed, and Israel controls, directly and indirectly,  millions of Palestinians  without their consent on the West Bank and Gaza.  It is not a liberal democracy even in what Peter Beinart calls “Democratic Israel”, because it excludes a large percentage of its citizenry, native Palestinians, from the nation that the state represents. And because any government that rests on the votes of those outside the nation is considered, by a  great number of Israelis, illegitimate.

I don’t believe Israel is substantively a Jewish state either,at least not with respect to  these issues. That is not to say that there are not a great many Jews here; on the contrary, it is a state of the Jews, and there are Jewish institutions, and Jewish folks like other folks, some good, some bad.  But it is not a Jewish state in the sense that its founding principles do not embody core Jewish principles, in my opinion.  In its treatment of its minorities, its underprivileged groups, its foreigners, it does not reach the level of a decent society, much less a Torah society.  The fact that there may be better or worse societies in the world  doesn’t affect my view that this society is not, on these questions, a substantively Jewish society

Israel could become substantively democratic if it  grants real political power to native Palestinians by ending the occupation; creating the ability for native Palestinians who are not citizens to become citizens, including the Palestinian refugees who wish to return; recognizing Palestinian Israeli citizens as a homeland minority with national and cultural rights; and empowering Palestinian parties by giving them control over ministries and budgets.

This is, of course, a dream. But today we are moving closer to realizing the dream, with the election of a party to the Knesset that will fight for those goals, the Joint List.

There are still many hurdles to face. For years I have been saying pessimistically that even if there were 20 or 30 members of the Knesset that believed in the aforementioned goals, they would be in a permanent opposition, because Israel is considered to be a Jewish state. Even the Joint List has said repeatedly that for ideological reasons it cannot sit in a Zionist government that makes decisions affecting settlements, Palestinians, lands, etc. There is almost a coalition of interests to keep Palestinians out of the government.

And then I read the vision of Ayman Oudeh, the lawyer who heads the Joint List,  who says that in ten years there could be an Arab prime minister of Israel, and that empowering Palestinian Israelis will be good for all Israelis.

And I remember the example of the anti-Zionist ultra-orthodox parties, who found creative ways to take care of their underfunded sectors without being full fledged members of the government, until time did its own work, and they began to be members of the government.

How can Israel become substantively Jewish? By becoming a society that attempts to eliminate social injustice.  By becoming a desegregated society. By saying to itself, “If we are commanded to love the stranger as ourselves, because we were strangers in the land of Egypt, how much more so are we to take care of  ourselves, our citizens, especially those who have suffered through the creation and maintenance of an ethnic exclusivist state!”

Such a state will have its flaws; no state is perfect.  But such a state and only such a state will be worthy of the adjective “Jewish”.

One small step was taken today for Israel to become substantively Jewish and democratic – and, also, Palestinian.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Selling Purim to Progressives Yet Again

It has been my custom to reproduce this “Selling Purim to Progressives” post occasionally on Purim, with some modifications.  The last time was in 2012. But when I read yesterday what I wrote then, I realized that little had changed in the last three years.  There was Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu with his annual Purim message: present-day Iran is Persia, its leader is the wicked Haman, they want to destroy us; if the US doesn’t come through, “there will be salvation from another place,” in other words, Israel will get the job done, i.e., unilaterally attack Iran without provocation (and no, tweeting that Israel should disappear is not a provocation, much less a casus belli). In 2015 Bibi told the US congress  “I can promise you one more thing: Even if Israel has to stand alone, Israel will stand.” Now that’s a provocation, although not as explicit as the constant threats Israel has issued against Iran.

So without further ado, here is what I wrote in 2012:

This year [I present my post]  a day after Prime Minister Netanyahu gave  a megillah/Scroll of Esther to President Obama.The scroll, read twice on the holiday of Purim, relates the victory of the Jews over Haman the Agagite, his sons, and a whole bunch of people inside and outside the Persian capital of Shushan who had it in for the Jews. Jeffrey Goldberg explains the point of Bibi’s gift:

The prime minister of Israel is many things, but subtle is not one of them. The message of Purim is: When the Jews see a murderous conspiracy forming against them, they will act to disrupt the plot. A further refinement of the message is: When the Jews see a plot forming against them in Persia, they will act to disrupt the plot, even if Barack Obama wishes that they would wait for permission.

Goldberg reads Bibi right, but Bibi reads the megillah wrong.  In the story, the Jews are saved only because the Jewish Queen Esther convinces the Persian king to execute the wicked Haman, after which the king  authorizes the Jews to defend themselves against their attackers.

The real message of the megillah for Bibi should be:  Diplomacy works; self-defense is the last resort; and one should act  only with the consent of the legitimate authority. In other words, Jewish unilateralism and aggression are dumb and counterproductive.

Why don’t progressives like Purim? Oh, that’s easy.  It's not just the Scroll of Esther; it's the Amalek thing; it's the Barukh Goldstein thing (Goldstein was the settler who on Purim murdered Palestinians in prayer); it's the Hanan Porat "Purim Sameah" ("Happy Purim") thing (That's what the Gush Emunim leader allegedly said when he heard about the Goldstein massacre, though he claims that he was not celebrating Goldstein, but urging people to continue with the holiday, despite the horrible thing that had happened.) And mature adults don’t like the primitive customs associated with reading the megillah and Purim, like making deafening noise when the villain Haman's name is mentioned, or getting stone drunk. “A holiday for little children and idiots,” one person recently summed up Purim for me.

Well, that’s true to an extent. But Purim doesn’t have to be that way.  And the Scroll of Esther can be read to teach an important moral lesson. But we’ll get to that.

Consider the following:

As Marsha B. Cohen points out in her excellent post here, the Scroll of Esther is not history. I mean, there probably never was an Esther or a Mordecai or Haman. The story of Purim is part of the Jewish collective memory, which means that it never happened. So don't worry about innocents being killed, because according to the story, no innocents were killed. According to the story, the victims were guilty, or the offspring of those who were guilty, and in the ancient world, the offspring are generally considered extensions of their parent.  Is that a primitive, tribalistic morality? Of course! But it helps a bit to realize that we are in the realm of fantasy. I can't shed tears over the death of Orcs either. 

Once the book is understood as a fable written two thousand years ago, there are two possible ways of responding to it: by reading it literally as representing a morality that gets a B-(after all, Haman is indeed a villain that turns a personal slight into a call for genocide, and the Jews are indeed set upon), or by reading into it, against the grain of the story, our own moral imperatives.

I adopt both responses, but I prefer the latter. For one thing, I am doing what my medieval Jewish culture heroes, the rationalist philosophers like Maimonides, always did -- providing non-literal interpretations of scripture that were in tune with their own views.

James Kugel has argued persuasively that if you detach the Bible from its classical interpreters -- which is what Protestant Christianity and modern Biblical criticism attempts to do -- then the book you are left with is mediocre as literature, and only partly agreeable as ethics. The Bible has always undergone a process of interpretation, of mediation, even in its very text, because none of the classic readers could relate to it as a document produced in a certain time and place, but as timeless. 

So for me to relate to the Scroll of Esther, and to the Purim holiday in general, I emphasize (and distort) those points that are congenial to my ethics and worldview, and just dismiss the rest as pap for members of the family with a tribal morality.   I read the story of Esther as a fictional fantasy about how my people, through political wisdom and without religious fanaticism, or the help of a Deus ex machina, triumphed over the enemies who wished to destroy them because they were different.  

And that is a message which I will apply not only to my people, but to all beleaguered peoples who are in danger of having their identity and culture -- and physical welfare-- destroyed by forced assimilation, in the name of a superior culture and/or ethnic homogeneity. Because if what Haman wanted to do the Jews was wrong, then it is also wrong when anybody wishes to do this to any group.

After all, think of a contemporary leader who, because of slights to his national honor, and unwillingness to genuflect to his country’s power, punishes an entire people by  withholding their tax revenues, or turning off their electricity.

Pretty scary guy – and not just on Twitter.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

10 Reasons Why a Liberal/Progressive Zionist Should Support the Joint List in the Israeli Elections

If you are progressive/liberal, a supporter of democratic Israel, and, for good measure, a Zionist, there are two parties you can conscientiously support in the coming election.  (If you are a Zionist and not progressive/liberal, there are many parties to support, ranging from the moderate right (Labour) to the ultra, ultra right and proudly racist (Yachad).

The two parties worthy of your consideration are Meretz and the Joint List. 

Meretz needs no introduction; it is a veteran left wing Zionist party that represents the best of the old Zionist tradition, consistently working to make Israel a liberal democracy within the confines of statist/ethnicist, Zionism. Its leader, Zahava Galon, is a hardworking parliamentarian whose voice deserves to be heard. If you are liberal Jew who finds it hard to leave the Zionist tribe then Meretz is an acceptable alternative for you.

But if you are truly a progressive and care about both Israel and the Palestinians, then  leave the Zionist tribe this election.  Here are ten reasons why.

1. For the first time in history there is one political list that represents the most under-represented sector of Israeli society, Palestinian Israelis, the sector that has consistently been denied political power as permanent members of the opposition. (For those unfamiliar with the Israeli parliamentary system, money flows only to the sectors represented in the governing coalition, and since Arab parties are barred by the “Jewish state” ethos from joining the government, the Arab sector is routinely shafted. No amount of liberal pieties about the importance of closing the gap can change this fundamental truth: the Jewish state foundationally discriminates against its Arab citizens.)

2. If you are a progressive/liberal,  then you should support an Israel that is a nation of all its citizens, Jews and Arabs, Ashkenazi and Mizrahi, religious, haredi, and secular, male and female, etc., etc.  There is only one party that speaks in the name of the Israeli people (ha-Am ha-Yisraeli) and that is the Joint List. Most of the others explicitly claim to represent Am Yisrael, the Jewish People. If you are Sheldon Adelson that won’t be a problem. But if you are progressive, it should.

3. If you are a progressive/liberal, then you should support a party that has deliberately been ignored and dismissed by the media and official Israel  in this election, despite that it is now polling as the third or fourth largest party in the election – only because it is composed mainly of Palestinians Arabs.

4. If you are progressive/liberal and a Zionist,  then you should  be worried at the growing disaffection of Palestinian Israelis, whose participation in the democratic process has plummeted in recent elections.  And the reason is simple: Arabs have the right to vote, but they may as well flush their ballot down the toilet since all the major Zionist political parties refuse to sit in a governing coalition with them. Even Labour recently announced that it  would only sit in a coalition with a Jewish party (not in so many words, of course, but that was the clear implication of its statement “from Meretz” to the right).

5. If you are a progressive/liberal and a Zionist, then you should be alarmed at the racism and bigotry that infects virtually all segments of Israeli society, left, right and center. The Joint List is running on an anti-racism platform, and has reached out to the disadvantaged sectors of Israeli society, primarily, Mizrahim, Ethiopians, and women, those who have suffered from the institutional and personal racism that is so endemic in Israeli society.

6. If you are a progressive/liberal and a Zionist  then it’s time you start thinking outside the box in order to extricate  Israel from the undemocratic mess in which it is mired.  It will be harder (though admittedly possible) to ignore the Palestinian citizens of Israel when they have 15-20 seats in the Knesset. I have argued that for Israel to be a true democracy it needs more Palestinian representation, not less. The answer of many liberal Zionists is to argue for a two state solution in which a Palestinian state that discriminates against its Jewish citizens is created alongside an Israeli state that discriminates against its Arab citizens. Balancing discrimination with discrimination is not the answer. Eliminating discrimination is.

The next four reasons to support the Joint List are directed at Meretz supporters.

7. Isn’t it time you tried something new? I supported Meretz in 1992, when it reached the height of its political power and when it was able to “energize Rabin” (“Yumratz Rabin!” in Yossi Sarid’s immortal phrase) The only Israeli political party I ever actually joined was Meretz. But Meretz is still very identified with  Tel-Aviv, white, ashekenazi, secularists and is no longer a national party in any sense of the term. It still plays the anti-dati/religious card in its elections, and waffles whenever Israel embarks on a military adventure, always attempting to balance a  fundamentally imbalanced situation.  Not always, but too often, its “pep” has replaced its “energy”. (“Pep” as an acronym stands for “progressive except for Palestine”; the Hebrew word meretz means energy.”

8. If you are going to vote for a party that will be in the opposition – and Meretz definitely will be in the opposition, if it gets into the Knesset at all – why vote for a small party in the opposition when you can vote for a large party that has greater power on the committees?

9.  For years, pro-Israel Jewish progressives have said, “If only the Arabs could get their act together, think what political power they may have! Think how Israel would look!”  Well, now is the first – and depending on the response, perhaps the last – time that this is happening. Wouldn’t a Meretz supporter want to support this development, at least for one election?

10.  The Joint List is predominantly Arab, but it is definitely not the Joint Arab list. It is actively seeking Israeli Jewish partnership and I see a time when the list grows larger and incorporates people who once found their home in Meretz and even Meimad.  The Joint List is the best development in Israeli politics in years. It came about after the rightwing parties attempted, through legislation upheld by the Supreme Court, to limit Palestinian representation in the Knesset, even in the opposition. Progressives should show the Israeli public  that these moves will only boomerang.

And finally, the disgusting and so far successful attempt (until, God willing, the court overturns it) to disqualify MK Haneen Zoabi for some of the statements she has made should be enough for any true Jewish liberal not to support any of the parties that did not actively protest that decision, and that includes Labour. (For the record, I also protest the decision to bar Baruch Marzel from running, although there is no comparison between the two at all. In fact, he was the collateral damage of the attempt to silence Zoabi.)

Look this is politics and no choice is perfect. I realize that by casting my vote for the Joint List, I am also  voting a religious fundamentalist political party that makes up one of its components. That’s hardly progressive. And I also am sympathetic to the Palestinian claim that the elections are a sham, that Israel is a democracy only for the Jews, and that even if the Joint List gets 30 seats, they will still sit in the opposition. (In fact, I made that claim once.)

And yet…when some of the polls last week showed  the Joint List either neck-or-neck or outpolling Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party.  I almost leapt with joy – isn’t this the Israeli that progressives would want to see, a liberal, vibrant, inclusive democracy, rather than the reactionary nineteenth century ethnocracy it has become?

Let’s give the Joint List  a chance. We can hope that there will be change.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Shalom Hartman Institute, the Muslim Leadership Initiative, and “Faith Washing”

The Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, in some of whose programs I have participated,  runs one called the Muslim Leadership Initiative.  Here is a description of the program from the Hartman Institute website:

The program invites North American Muslims to explore how Jews understand Judaism, Israel, and Jewish peoplehood. The program also encourages participants to experience how Palestinians, both inside and outside Israel, identify themselves, while exploring the issues of ethics, faith, and practice…MLI seeks to expand participants' critical understanding of the complex religious, political, and socioeconomic issues facing people in Israel and Palestine. This is achieved through a rigorous academic curriculum and exposure to diverse narratives.

The program has been criticized by “organizations, groups, and individuals committed to Palestinian self-determination” for various reasons: the Hartman Institute is considered to be complicit in the Occupation and therefore should be boycotted; the Muslim Leadership Initiative provides a distorted picture of Judaism, at best, (in so far as Judaism is equated to Zionism) and is “faithwashing” hasbara at worst; the Hartman Institute is funded by Islamophobes, etc. (Many of these arguments can be found in links  here and here.)

Jewish Voice for Peace, of which I am a member, has issued the following statement:

Jewish Voice for Peace echoes the concerns of our Muslim partners who reject the efforts of the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Muslim Leadership Initiative to use interfaith relations as an excuse to justify the Israeli occupation.

We underscore that being Jewish and Judaism are not synonymous with Zionism or support for Israeli government policies. These false assumptions limit the scope of Jewish-Muslim relations and distort their nature. They also ignore the voices of countless numbers of Jews who are critical of Israel’s occupation of Palestine.

Here’s my take:

1. Supporters of BDS of Israeli academic institutions may legitimately boycott, if they so desire,  the Hartman Institute because as an institution it seems to me to fall within the PACBI guidelines. That is, as far, as I can see, the most cogent argument for pro-Palestinian voices not to participate at the Institute on principle. Like everything else regarding BDS, it’s an individual call.

2. Any rejection of the Muslim Leadership Initiative itself should be based on its curriculum, and since none of the critics refer to the curriculum, but draw inferences based on selective quotations of a website, the identities of some of the programs’ leaders, and references to organizations other than the Hartman Institute, the criticisms are flawed. Knowing some of the people involved in the program, I am sure that they want to have Muslims understand why Israel and the Land of Israel (Palestine) is important for the Jews, according to their own Zionist understanding of Judaism, which is shared by many Jews.

3. The Shalom Hartman Institute is unabashedly Zionist, and its vision of Judaism is unabashedly Zionist, what is called in Israel “centrist”.  It is also opposed to the BDS movement, as is every Israeli institution I know of.  Anybody who participates in its programs can find that much about the Institute very quickly. Muslim scholars who participate in their programs – and there have been many Palestinian Muslim leaders who have – know all this. One can participate in a program without accepting the basic premises of the people offering the program. In fact, one can learn a lot about liberal Zionism and religious Zionism in programs like that. Of course, that’s not  a sufficient reason to participate. I am a progressive, and I have no desire to participate in many programs at the Cato Institute, especially those that may be outreach, even though I may learn a lot about from them.

4. I frankly find offensive statements that tell me what Judaism/Christianity/Islam  is and isn’t.  These are big religions with multiple traditions and reducing them to one-size-fits-all is intellectually lazy and counterproducitve. I find laughable a statement like “we reject outright…the notion that what is happening in Palestine is a ‘religious conflict’.”  For many Jews and Muslims it very much is a religious conflict; that is part of the problem. And many Jews, indeed, most Jews, conflate Zionism and Judaism. I don’t agree with them, just like I don’t agree that radical Islam is all there is to Islam.  But if I were a Muslim, and I were only to talk to anti-Zionist Jews, then I would never be able to understand the pull of Zionism for Jews.   Not understanding the pull of Zionism for Jews has been a serious defect of the pro-Palestinian movement.

5. Finally, the notion that one speaks only with one’s allies strikes me as bizarre.  I happen to be one of the“countless numbers of Jews who are critical of Israel’s occupation of Palestine.”  But if I were a Muslim, and I were trying to understand why Israel has become so central to the majority of Jews who are identifiably Jewish today, I wouldn’t spend most of my time talking to folks like me.

6. Go back to number one.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

How Open Should Hillel Be?

Several years ago, when Richard Joel was the president of Hillel International, the goal of Hillel was formulated as  “maximizing the number of Jews doing things Jewish with other Jews.”  It was the notion of “doing things Jewish” that I liked, because that could be interpreted in many ways, religiously, socially, politically, recreationally, etc.  Of course, playing basketball is not just a Jewish activity, and maybe it’s not a Jewish activity at all. (Tell that to Jewish day schools…) And indeed there are many places for Jewish students to do things on campus that are not Jewish, or not with other Jews.  I teach Jewish Studies, and I don’t “do Jewish” in my classroom, and I may penalize students if they “do Jewish” on their assignments. “That’s for Hillel,” I tell them. I’m not in the Jewish identity business; HIllel is.

“Doing things Jewish with Jews” casts a wide net.  It can include Zionist and anti-Zionist groups  provided that they frame their respective activities within the discourse of “doing Jewish”.  I know many Jews that are deeply offended as Jews by the way Zionism has been implemented in the State of Israel, and needless to say, there have been many historically anti-Zionist Jewish groups. They should be welcome at HIllel not merely as individuals, but as spokespeople for ideologies that criticize and offer alternatives to Zionism and to the State of Israel.  By the same token, ultra-Zionist groups, like the Zionist Freedom Alliance, should also be welcome. I believe that there  should be limits; it is hard to see how a group that preached racial or religious hatred should be welcome, even if legally some of the claims may be protected speech. On the other hand, views offensive to some students should be allowed, provided that there is a willingness to be part of a community, and a common agreement to disagree.  You don’t have to go a presentation by the Zionist Freedom Alliance or Jewish Voice for Peace if you don’t want to. When Meir Kahane came to my college campus, many did not go to hear him; I did.

It is sad, though not surprising, that some want to open Hillel just enough to let their own excluded group in.  “Just let J Street U in,” they say to the gatekeepers, “We are part of the family; it’s those Jews who partner with the Students for Justice in Palestine --  the BDS crowd that should be excluded.”  A recent post by a disappointed Open Hillel-er, herself from J Street U, decries the intolerance of those on the left who ridiculed her desire to invite Elie Wiesel to the Open Hillel, and who only invited rightwing groups for strategic purposes, i.e., to show how open they are.  Open Hillel is presented as a ruse to provide legitimacy for views that she considers illegitimate. But this is confusing the ideology of some members of Open Hillel with what Open Hillel wants the ideology of Hillel to be. Open Hillel is overwhelmingly a left wing enterprise, ranging from liberal Zionist to non-Zionist and anti-Zionist. I never heard that it pretends to be representative of all voices, certainly not the voices of Closed Hillel.  Rather, it wants HIllel to give the excluded groups  a place at the table with the included groups.

How does one explain that the same author who called on Hillel to open its doors to BDS and anti-Zionist groups a few weeks ago now wishes to exclude them? I suppose she doesn’t like the fact that some of these groups find more in common with  Students for Justice in Palestine then with J Street U.  SJP is not about dialogue with liberal Zionists; it is about joint struggle with anybody who will support Palestinian rights. In some places it will not “dialogue” with liberal Zionist groups like J Street U or partner with them to bring liberal Zionist critics of the government to campus.

Hillel has no obligation to host an event sponsored by Students for Justice in Palestine, even if its president is Jewish. That’s because SJP’s mission is not a Jewish one, though obviously many of its aims can coincide with the aims of Jewish students doing things Jewish.  Dialogue between Jews is a value, but it’s not the only way to do things Jewish.  Once the motive is a Jewish one – and human rights or moral protest can be framed as a Jewish value --  then the organization acting on that motive has a place at HIllel.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Academic Freedom in the Service of Liberal Zionism

Most academics share a loyalty to the cherished ideals of their profession, including the ideals of  academic freedom and opposition to academic boycotts. Such a loyalty need not be absolute; reasonable people can disagree whether boycotting academic institutions is ever justifiable, and some academic organizations will allow their members to make an individual decision on this point. But even if not an absolute value, opposition to academic boycotts is, or should be, the default value for academics. Or so I believe.

So when I heard that there was a group of American university professors that oppose  academic boycotts of Israel,  and that serves as the Academic Advisory Council to an organization called  “The Third Narrative”,  which calls itself  “pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian,” I was curious. I wondered whether its position on academic boycotts would be based on an adherence to the ideal of academic freedom.  Such a group would attract not only ideologically liberal Zionists,  but scholars of Middle Eastern studies, Arab and Israeli academics in this country, and others for whom academic freedom is sacrosanct. In principle, it could attract non-Jewish conservative and progressive supporters of Palestinian liberation. Such an organization could be a serious voice in the debate on campus over academic boycotts and the silencing or chilling of speech. And it could find at least some willing ears. The Middle East Studies Association (MESA) is not exactly overly populated with liberal Zionists, and yet it has not backed an academic boycott of Israel. Noam Chomsky is not a liberal Zionist, and yet he opposes the academic boycott of Israel and he thinks a two-state solution is the only realistic alternative to the status quo, much to the chagrin of many supporters of Palestinian rights. You don’t have to be pro-Israel to be an opponent of academic boycotts. There is room for a bipartisan, or nonpartisan, organization.

So I was saddened, but not surprised, to find that very few of the Academic Advisory Council  come from Middle East studies, or from progressive supporters of academic freedom tout court. The board opposes  academic boycott of Israel because it feels, somewhat oddly, that boycotting Israeli academic institutions is  counterproductive to its particular liberal Zionist vision of a two-state solution, and because it feels that academic boycotts unjustly single out Israel.  Or to put it crudely: as bad as Israel’s policies may be, those policies aren’t so bad as to warrant an academic boycott.  The fact that the boycott could actually help convince Israel that there is a price for the occupation is irrelevant to these liberal Zionists. 

Of course, there is nothing wrong with this.  The “Third Narrative,” it turns out, is sponsored by Ameinu, which is a liberal Zionist organization, and Tony Lerman notwithstanding, liberal Zionism is far from dead (although, judging from the average age of the members of the Advisory Counicl, it seems to be getting pretty old.)  I know a lot of people on the Advisory Council, and some are friends. But make no mistake -- the “Third Narrative” is positioned  between the Jewish Zionist narrative on the right, and the Jewish anti- or non-Zionist narrative on the left,  It is a Third Narrative within the tribe,  and its proponents take part in a  debate among family on behalf, primarily, of the family,  just as they have done for the last sixty years.

The only game in town that brings together progressive Jewish voices in coalition with progressive Palestinian voices is Jewish Voice of Peace, whose mission statement speaks of “security and self-determination for Israelis and Palestinians.” Like MESA, which is an academic and not an advocacy organization, it doesn’t take a position as an organization on academic boycott, although, unlike MESA,  it does express solidarity with the global BDS movement.  This organization includes Jews, Christians, Muslims, and None of the Above; it supports a just solution for Palestinians and Israelis, but it recognizes the fundamental disparity of effective agency between the two groups.

To my colleagues in academia who care about a just solution that provides equal measures of self-determinism and security to Palestinians and Israelis, but do not wish to jump on the BDS bandwagon,  may I suggest that they sit this one out and watch to see whether  the Academic Advisory Board of the Third Narrative will be yet another group in the already crowded field of Israel advocacy on campus, a well-intentioned liberal counterpart of the Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.  It will be as powerless to advance its liberal Zionist agenda as organizations like J-Street or Meretz USA or Ameinu, whose handwringing has brought 0 results.  At best, it may provide some protection for pro-BDS academics who are harassed by the non-academic Israel advocacy organizations, though I doubt it will be necessary in this regard.

And the Academic Advisory Council seems committed, because of its stance, to oppose an academic boycott of Ariel University, or any of its scholars, despite the fact that the university is built on Palestinian land in the West Bank. Theodore Bikel has expressed sympathy for an artistic boycott of Ariel, and some of the members of the Academic Advisory board agree. Apparently, artistic freedom is not as precious in their eyes as academic freedom.

Speaking of freedom, the freedom not to join organizations or to sign petitions is also rightly prized by academics. Again, I hope my friends who are on this group will watch very carefully how much energy it devotes to defeating Palestinians initiatives on campus that – at best – give Israel a very symbolic slap on the wrist.  When the academic boycott movement in England started up in the early 2000s, many Jewish progressives academics vocally opposed it. Many still do, but their voices are muted.  I expect that this will happen in due course with those who have joined the Academic Advisory Board of the Third Narrative – the ones who are true liberals.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

On Offensive Speech and Ethnic Sensitivities -- Part Two

When I was growing up in the late fifties and  early sixties, my best friend’s mother was an outspoken Jewish liberal who embraced every progressive cause. She would drag my friend and me to civil rights protests and talk about the issues of the day with great liberal passion.

Once I told her that my older brother was  considering buying a Volkswagen, and she replied,  “I simply cannot buy anything from Germany, certainly not a Volkswagen.”  I pointed out to her that Volkswagen cars were sold in Israel, that Germany had paid reparations to Israel, and that many Germans had volunteered to work in Israeli kibbutzim. But she wouldn’t budge; she could not bring herself to buy anything German, even though this was twenty years after World War II, and it was a different generation.

Her position bothered me at the time, since I had been taught that we shouldn’t blame the children for the sins of the parents. Her personal boycott of Germany and Germany goods didn’t jibe with her liberalism. I never talked to her about it; had I done so, she probably would have  conceded that she was acting from her gut.  But she was my best friend’s mother, a close family friend whom I loved dearly, and so I just kept quiet. Even today I will excuse a holocaust survivor who feels that way.  Still, not buying from the Germans today simply because they are German strikes me as bigoted, and while I may excuse somebody who acts in a bigoted manner because of some extenuating circumstance, I have to understand that it is the only extenuating circumstance, and perhaps the principle of charity, that excuse that person. The bigotry itself is worthy of moral condemnation, though in the greater scheme of things there are worse sins than not buying products from a certain country because of a historical grievance.

Which brings me back to Prof. Salaita’s tweets. Though I was offended by them less than others, I did find some of them coarse, unenhanced, and demeaning for a university professor. I particularly didn’t like the one that wished that all the settlers would disappear like the three kidnapped Israelis had disappeared.  Don’t misunderstand me. I consider the settlement movement a moral abomination;   through the systematic theft of land it not only destroys the lives of particular people, it destroys the life and aspirations of a people. The settlement movement is not merely an “obstacle to peace”; it is a crime against humanity  and to the extent that I am an Israeli citizen, and pay taxes, I am complicit in that crime.

But at the same time, settlers are human beings and cannot be just wished dead. So like Prof. Klug who will not march in the company of somebody carrying a sign equating a Jewish Star with Nazism, so too I will not retweet those tweets that I find offensive, not just to Jews, but to any decent being.

That said -- and said loudly – let us not forget that in the greater scheme of things the crudeness of a few tweets pales behind the enormity of the crime of Israel against the Palestinian people, a crime that ebbs and flows from the banal evil of the day-to-day occupation to the demonic evil of its periodic outbursts where Israel feels it has  to “establish deterrence” by collectively pushing the Palestinian  people into the mud.  (I am sure that I have just offended many of my coreligionists. I have tenure, but I do not plan to tweet that remark, and I ask you you not to retweet it.)

And when a member of the group who has suffered, and continues to suffer, says something that is offensive to the group responsible for that suffering (or who supports the group responsible for that suffering), then by all means call out that person for his offensive remarks – but cut him some slack and get over it. 

The only reason I have spent this much time on the subject is that every month there is a Finkelstein or Blumenthal or Abunimah or Salaita who says something that may strike some Jews as offensive. Instead of rushing to condemn these people, who speak for the victim, perhaps intemperately at times, it would be better to invite them to explain their harsh words.

That was what the President of the University of Illinois should have done at the outset with Prof. Salaita.   Had he been a tenured member of the faculty he would not have been treated in this dismissive manner.  At my university, when professors say something that is considered out of line,  they are given a hearing in the appropriate forum.

That’s what she should still do now. And until she does, the university will suffer the consequences for her insensitivity. 

As for my liberal Zionist friends who have been pummeling Prof. Salaita; may I suggest that they all take a deep breath and keep things in proportion. Reject the tweet, if you like, but try to cut some slack to the tweeter. And invite him to explain his position.

On Offensive Speech and Ethnic Sensitivities -- Part One

“Even if one grants that the University of Illinois acted wrongly in the case of Stephen Salaita, the tweets themselves should be considered deeply offensive, and,  while not overtly anti-Semitic, they conjure up themes and motifs that smack of anti-Semitism. This may not be grounds for dismissal, but it is certainly grounds for condemning the tweets on their own.”

The above is a composite of several reactions to the post below  that I would like to examine. But before I do, consider the following  case, taken from Brian Klug’s essay, Offence: the Jewish Case

At a pro-Palestinian rally  in England, following Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, there was a placard that represented an Israeli flag, only instead of the Star of David there was a swastika (or a Star of David and a swastika with an “equals” sign between them).  Now to a Jew this is deeply offensive, for when a Jew sees the Star of David, he associates it with Jews in general or with Judaism – after all, the Nazis required Jews to wear the yellow star well before there was an Israeli flag.  The placard is taken by many Jews to  imply that the victims are to be identified with the perpetrators, and worse, that Judaism is Nazism.  Even a  placard that explicitly stated that  Israel Defense Forces were acting like German soldiers, as offensive as that might be to many Jews, would be less offensive than one in which the Star of David is identified with, or is replaced by, the swastika. What could be more anti-Semitic than that?

Klug points out that this reaction is understandable given Jewish sensitivities and memories, but it is also possible, and maybe actually the case, that the placard writer didn’t mean any of that, that she just wanted to protest vehemently against  Israeli military actions against innocent civilians, and she used the swastika, a universal symbol of evil often used in other, non-Jewish contexts, such as anti-war protests in the United States.  His point, I think,  is two-fold: that Jews, like other groups, have understandable, and in some cases commendable, sensitivities,  but that in assessing whether something is anti-Semitic or not, the intentions of the author should be taken into account. Even something as prima facie anti-Semitic as defacing a synagogue, though criminal and condemnable, is not necessarily an anti-Semitic ac; it depends in large measure on the intentions of the perpetrator. 

Klug writes of the offending banner:

I was not on marches where placards with this image were displayed…Some of the protesters who stepped out under the aegis of this image are, I am sure, decent human beings whose views about Israel’s actions in Gaza are not very different from my own. I might even agree completely with what they say. But if they asked me to join them under their banner I would have to reply, adapting a phrase that wasn’t Voltaire’s, I approve of what you say, but I wouldn’t be seen dead in your company.

Klug was referring to the marchers. To the placard writer, I would say, “I approve of your condemnation of the massacre of innocents, but, as a Jew, and, frankly, as a decent human being, your rhetoric, no matter what your intent, renders it impossible for me to link arms with you in this procession.”

That’s not the end of the story; two further points should be made. First, offence is subjective, from which follows that not every offence carries the same weight, and indeed some offence may be morally praiseworthy, e.g., offending an Israeli military that has committed war crimes. Second, even when being offended is understandable and even  justifiable,  “getting over it” might be the right thing to do, especially when the one giving offence has historically suffered at the hands of the offender's group, or the group the offended supports.  Much depends on context, not just the context of the offence, but of the offender and the offended.

But more of this in Part Two.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Some Short Takes on the Salaita Affair

Since Corey Robin has done such a fine job of reporting and commenting on the Steven Salaita affair (Prof. Salaita’s job offer was revoked by the President of University of Illinois at Urbana-Campaign after some pro-Israeli donors had complained about some of his tweets that offended them), I have only a few things to add.

1) First, I have yet to see a single person defend the President’s decision who is not pro-Israel.  One would expect that advocates of civility codes would be the first who feel that universities have a right to monitor the social media of professors to see if anything they say or write is deemed offensive to a particular group of students.  Mind you, I am not talking about what they say in the classroom, although I tend to be fairly conservative here in my commitment to freedom of expression.  I am talking about what they say and write outside the classroom.

2) Prof. Steven Plaut at Haifa University denies that there are Palestinians (he places the term in “quotes”) but considers them all to be terrorists!  Does that offend some Palestinian students? I suppose it does. But the offensive claptrap that Plaut writes  is his own damn business – unless it presents an imminent danger to individuals or groups. I realize that this is my American meshugas, that there are hate speech laws in European countries (and in Israel).  But what can you do, I’m an American and believe in those values. That is why I opposed banning Meir Kahane’s Kach party many years ago, and I still oppose banning it today. That is why I opposed banning the vile book Torat ha-Melekh or Hitler’s Mein Kampf.

3) I have no way of assessing Salaita’s quality as a scholar, but two universities have offered him tenured positions based on his teaching, service, and scholarship. So even his critics have to admit that he is admired and respected within his profession (or at least I haven’t heard anything to the contrary). 

4.  Finally, I would like to address the content of what one writer considers Salaita’s “most hateful tweets”, and, as an intellectual exercise, pose the following question to his detractors.

Had Salaita tweeted or blogged the following:

a. By conflating Jewishness and Israel, Israel is partly responsible when their disproportionate attacks on civilians are followed by regrettable anti-Semitic incidents in Europe.

b. If criticizing Israeli treatment of and attitudes towards  Palestinians is anti-Semitic, then insofar as that criticism is justified, and indeed, commendable, so is anti-Semitism.  But of course, criticizing Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians is not anti-Semitic; it is “anti-Semitism” only in the eyes of the Zionists, who conflate Judaism and Zionism.

c. The IDF spokesperson appears to justify violence committed against the Palestinian people, using techniques that are reminiscent of apologists for ethnic cleansing.

would his detractors still have argued that he is unfit to teach at the University of Illinois? No doubt many would. But I agree with much of those sentiments. So why do they go after Salaita and not go after me?

Either because Salaita’s language is more blunt and vulgar than mine, or because he is a Palestinian American, rather than an American Israeli. I have the creds that he lacks, and so I am protected in ways that he isn’t. 

I have the feeling that the latter explanation is more accurate. Being part of a powerful minority, with Jewish and Israeli creds,  has its advantages.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

On Demonizing the Enemy

Do you think that Hamas celebrates death, intends to kill as many Israeli civilians as possible, deliberately fires rockets from populated areas in order to increase Palestinian casualties and to embarrass  Israel on the world stage, and forces Gazan civilians to act as human shields?  Do you think that if they could, they would wipe out every Israeli man, woman, and child, and that it is only Iron Dome and the primitiveness of their rockets that prevents this outcome?  Do you think they built tunnels for this purpose? 

If you do, I don’t know why. You don’t have any credible evidence to warrant these claims.  And yes, I have read the Hamas Charter, and yes, the movement is anti-Semitic.

Here’s two more questions: Are you a liberal who feels bad about the suffering of the Gazans, but who makes a sharp distinction between them and Hamas? Does it make a difference to you that while some Gazans express reservations about Hamas’ fundamentalist ideology, many, perhaps most of them, support Hamas’s resistance against Israel – and I assume  that is also true of most West Bank Palestinians?

Like most insurgent movements with a military wing, Hamas is hardly a paragon of virtue in wartime. There is  considerable evidence that Hamas recklessly endangers the lives of Palestinian citizens by firing indiscriminately rockets and missiles. This constitutes a war crime.  I really can’t see that they actually endanger the lives of Israelis – they certainly frighten them --  but firing rockets into Israel the way they do should be considered a war crime. An occupied people under a brutal siege has a right to armed resistance.  If it were the Jews and not the Palestinians, you would agree.  It may not be prudent for them to exercise that right, but they have it.

People ask, “What is Israel supposed to do when rockets are fired at them?” To them I ask, “How are the Palestinians supposed to fight justly when they can’t get close enough to well-protected IDF  forces to shoot at them?” These are hard questions but whatever their answers, both sides must take maximum reasonable precautions to spare civilians. Once again, both sides didn’t, and both sides committed war crimes, though not of the same magnitude.  I have not yet been entirely convinced that Hamas fought a just war  – although political theorist Anthony Burke makes a persuasive argument for the justice of Hamas’s waging war under international humanitarian law and the laws of war. Their demands for a truce are reasonable, and in most cases, Israel has agreed to these demands in the past.

Now here’s a question for me: if I think that the Palestinians have the right to resort to armed resistance as a last resort, why do I detest Hamas? That’s easy. They are a  religious fundamentalist political party that opposes all my liberal values. I detest all religious fundamentalist political parties. I shudder to think how the Jewish Home party, or better, the Shas party, would fight a war were they to be in control of the Israeli government, and Israel  was under Palestinian occupation for generations, and a decade long-siege. Needless to say I detest Hamas’s  anti-Semitism, just like I detest the anti-Palestinianism and anti-Arabism of the Jewish fundamentalist right.

But just because I detest a political party, that doesn’t mean I have the right to interfere with a democratically-elected government, provided that government is not interfering with my country.  And when they do interfere with my country, I only resort to war as a last resort, after all other resorts fail. In this case, of course, the Palestinians are not a separate independent country, but a people under occupation and siege. 

What I have written makes me a defender of liberal values, not Hamas.  In wartime, those values often get chucked overboard by liberals, especially if they feel a need to rally around the flag.  Demonizing the enemy is as old as warfare.  We shouldn’t do it. Especially when that enemy has been under a brutal occupation for decades.

Monday, August 4, 2014

We Are Romans, Mourning for the Destruction of the Temple

We are Romans, mourning for the destruction of the Temple.

We are Romans, born of a great civilization with a noble destiny.

We rain havoc on Jerusalem and its people.

And blame the Zealots for the deaths and displacement .

“Terrorists.” “Suicide-bombers.” “Haters of all things civilized”

“We wish no harm to the people.”

“We willingly grant them autonomy.”

“The destruction of Jerusalem is the work of the Zealots.”

But the hurban is the work of our hands.

Our hands have shed this blood.

We are Romans, mourning for the destruction of the Temple.


Tisha B’Av, 5774

Friday, August 1, 2014

Zionism 2014: Power Without Agency

Classical Zionism argued that the loss of political sovereignty involved the loss of Jewish political power, and hence the loss of Jewish political agency.  Jewish existence was considered to be ahistorical in the diaspora, and Jews were shuttled from land to land “as a driven leaf.” Classical Zionism called for a “return of the Jewish people into history,” to use Emil Fackenheim’s phrase, and the return of power to Judaism. Jews would be for the first time in two thousand years the masters of their fate, not dependent upon the nations of the world. Jews would have real power, and hence, agency.

So it never ceases to surprise me that supporters of the Jewish state today,  at the zenith of its power and influence, a power the founders of Zionism could never have imagined, actually deny Israel agency in its dealings with non-Jewish groups, especially the Palestinians. These supporters  deny Israel agency in order to avoid  moral accountability for its actions.

For example, it is well known that anti-Semitic activity correlates with  hostile activities directed towards Palestinians. This has been shown in study after study. During the first two years of the Oslo Accords, anti-Semitic activity was at a record low.  Yet when one holds Israeli actions in part responsible for ebb and flow of anti-Semitism (I emphasize, “in part”), many people say that no matter what Israel does, there will still be anti-Semitism; and that Israeli actions merely provide a convenient “excuse” or  “pretext” for  anti-Semitic activity.  Israel has power, but it lacks agency; hence it is not at all responsible.

As of this writing, Israel has wreaked havoc on an entire population, killing over 1400 people, and wiping out whole neighborhoods.  Yet supporters of Israel deny any responsibility on the grounds that Israel is merely reacting to Hamas’s provocation. In other words, Hamas forces Israel, against its will, to kill hundreds of civilians. One would think that Hamas is quite literally holding a gun to Israel’s back, saying, “We will kill you if you don’t kill our people.”  Israelis will say, “What can we do? Our people are under attacks from rockets, We are forced to defend ourselves.”

Power without agency. No agency, no moral accountability.

The most recent attempt to absolve Israel of most of its moral accountability for war crimes is the philosopher and liberal Zionist, Michael Walzer, writing in The New Republic. Walzer has a novel argument; it is not so much only that Israel is forced by Hamas to commit war crimes, but rather it finds itself in the position of power in an asymmetric war, and this is almost a recipe for atrocities against civilians. Israel, or any strong power, can’t help but committing atrocities.

In asymmetric warfare, low-tech forces—call them terrorists, militants, or the more neutral "insurgents," which I will use—aim at the most vulnerable targets, civilians, and they launch their attacks from the midst of the civilian population. The high-tech forces respond, in defense of their own or of allied civilians, and end up killing large numbers of enemy civilians.

Walzer believes that in such circumstances, for the asymmetric war to be waged justly, the powerful party has to assume a certain amount of risk for its soldiers in order to spare the lives of civilians.  He assumes that on the whole, Israel does this, despite bringing no evidence for that view (besides the curious fact that Israel is a “democracy”). He also assumes that Hamas deliberately launches rocket attacks from populated areas in order to inflate the number of civilian casualties from reprisals, despite bringing no evidence for that view either.  Walzer has written about how powerful parties can wage an asymmetric war justly; he has written less, to my knowledge, about the weaker parties. He ends his article as follows:

I would strongly advise anyone contemplating the loss of life in Gaza to think carefully about who is responsible, or primarily responsible, for putting civilians at risk. The high-tech army, for all its claims to precision, is often callous and clumsy. But it is the insurgents who decide that the death of civilians will advance their cause. We should do what we can to ensure that it doesn't.   

Once again, power without agency. So much for moral accountability.

So much for the Jewish return into history.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

When Will American Rabbis Go Beyond “Feeling Sympathy” for the Gazans?

As the extent of the brutal and inhuman bombing of Gaza becomes known, it is hard for Jews who consider themselves relatively decent not to speak out.  Some American rabbis are beginning to express sympathy with the innocent victims of the IDF onslaught and to imply, ever so gingerly, that Israel should reconsider what it is doing, from a “Jewish” standpoint.

These expressions of sympathy are inevitably accompanied by expressions of support of Israel, unquestioned faith in the purity of its motives, blind acceptance of the morality of the Israel Defense Forces and the truth of the IDF spokespeople, as well as ritual  condemnation of Hamas.  Even as  we slaughter Gazans and bomb refugee camps into the stone age in ways that the Palestinians never did, and never could do, it is important for our own self-image to imply that we are, deep down,  more moral than they are.  After all, we deliberately and openly arrest Palestinian civilians in reprisals for the murder of our civilians,  whereas the terrorists kidnap soldiers.  We kill civilians and express (occasionally) regret; but when  they fight and kill our soldiers, they aren’t legal combatants of an occupied population under attack but terrorists. We invade; they infiltrate.

I gave up on orthodox rabbis years ago.Their morality is entirely tribal, with the added moral smugness about how we Jews are different from them.  The dean of American modern orthodoxy, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, was simply incapable of understanding why Arabs would oppose Zionism,  and he actually raised the halakhic question of whether those who oppose the Jewish state (“the mobs of Nassar and the Mufti”) should have the law of Amalek applied to them, i.e., to wipe out their men, women, and children. And he was considered one of the more liberal of the modern orthodox rabbis!   One can pity and excuse the Rav for these sentiments – I really like to believe that in cooler moments he would have rejected his own inference -- but no decent human being cannot be revulsed by them.  In Israel, the religious Zionist rabbis range from the enlightened colonialists to the Judaeo-fascists. Moral chauvinism is almost part of the “DNA” of modern orthodoxy; expecting orthodox rabbis to rise above it would be like expecting the Pope to endorse abortion.

So when I read a piece by a well-intended conservative rabbi who believes “that our hearts should grieve, that we should not be able to sleep at night, for the hundreds of Gazan non-combatants who died horrible deaths this week, yesterday, today, and are dying right this minute,” I asked myself: Should I be happy, or at least relieved, that finally, American rabbis have broken their silence? After all, unlike Rabbi David Seth-Kirshner, this rabbi doesn’t adopt the terrorist reasoning behind the Hamas suicide bombers and Osama Bin Laden that makes  civilians into combatants if they elect a government hostile to one’s interests.

No, I should not. For if is the best our rabbinate can do, I can only grieve for American Jewry,  whose hearts have become so hardened that only when there is mass slaughter of innocents and wanton destruction is their sleep disturbed. Where was the rabbi when the people of Gaza were put under a long and callous siege, the calories of their food counted, their movements restricted, solely because they had democratically elected representatives that were not to Israel’s liking? Where was the rabbi when the Israeli government rounded up released Hamas prisoners and government officials on the West Bank who had nothing to do with the murder of the three Jewish students? Where was the rabbi when the ongoing occupation led to the deaths of many Palestinians, at a time when Hamas was “relatively quiet”? My God, the rabbi throws in suicide bombing into the mix? How many thousands of Palestinians civilians have been killed by Israelis, since the last suicide bomb went off, well before Hamas became the recognized government in Gaza? 

It seems to me that the good rabbi, like many other good American Jews sleep peacefully through the moral nightmare of Palestinian existence – in refugee camps, the diaspora, under occupation, and even within Israel. It takes the noise of 120 one-tonne bombs to disturb their sleep. 

How have we Jews gotten to a situation where we can “sleep” so soundly? How have we excused ourselves by saying that Israel is existentially threatened, when, on the contrary,  the only existential threat is Israel for the Palestinian people?

I have yet to read a piece written by a rabbi of any denomination that achieves the moral clarity of Haaretz’s Gideon Levy , Amira Hass, former  M.K. Avraham Burg, and others. These are the Jews  that keep me Jewish during this long, long night of hardened hearts --  along with the rabbinical council of Jewish Voice for Peace, God bless them, and the many Jews and non-Jews fighting for justice and human rights.

In the honor/shame culture that is contemporary Judaism, expressing sympathy for the most egregious victims of our post-Holocaust neuroses, ultra-nationalism, moral chauvinism, and lethal weapons, is apparently the best our rabbinical leadership can come up with.

How moral we Jews are for unanimously condemning the pouring of kerosene down the throat of an innocent Arab youth and burning him alive!

And that is one of the most depressing lessons of these terrible times

Thursday, July 24, 2014

When Palestinians Live Up to Israel’s Moral Example

I was sent today a blog post by a self-described “progressive” rabbi entitled, “I’m Done Apologizing for Israel.” After repeating the standard hasbara talking points  the rabbi concludes, “We must do what we can to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else.”

The rabbi and I are in fundamental agreement about this conclusion. Israelis have the right to protect their own people and are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. But that “anyone else” includes the Palestinian people, and, as a progressive, he surely doesn’t hold that Israelis are more deserving of life and quiet than they are. So the rabbi must hold that the Palestinians have the same right to protect their people, and the same right to self-defense that Israel does. Like Israel, they have the right to wage war, not with primitive rockets, but with tanks, missiles, and fighter jets. The Palestinians have the right to do whatever it takes to provide themselves with the security and pride that the IDF provides Israelis. Furthermore, the Palestinians, like the Israelis, have the right to determine their own destinies and not depend on others to treat their wounded, or to provide them with building materials, or to ration different products, or to restrict their movement in the name of the other’s security. The Palestinians do not have the right to restrict the importation of materials into Israel, to control where Israelis can fish, to blockade Israeli ports, to restrict Israeli movement – unless, like the Israelis, they consider it vital for their security.

Perhaps the rabbi may reply at this point, “Hang on -- in principle, I grant that Palestinians have these rights, but first they have to prove to Israel and to the world that they can run their state in a civilized manner.” In other words, unlike those Israelis who chant “Death to the Arabs,” who pull up chairs and cheer when the IDF drops bombs on Gaza killing overwhelmingly civilians, who call for revenge and bombing Gaza into the stone age, and who justify holding millions of people indefinitely in an open-air prison, in the name of security, in short, who control not only their own lives and destinies, but the lives and destinies of millions of other in a horrendous occupation – the Palestinians must be held to the same moral standard that Israel was held to before it could have a recognized state, an advanced military, and self-determination.

Fair enough. So here is my proposal for the progressive rabbi. Let Israel unilaterally withdraw from all occupied territories and place them for ten years under a UN trusteeship. At the end of those ten years, during which the Palestinians equip themselves with a powerful army, the Palestinians will unilaterally declare a state, and will continue forcefully expelling from its lands those Israeli settlers, whether peaceful or not, who are a perceived threat to its territorial contiguity.  If Israel wishes, it can attack the Palestinian state, but that state will be justified to retaliate, and  if successful, it will be justified, in the name of its security, to seize additional territory, turn millions of Israelis into refugees, bar their return, expropriate their land, place some of them under occupation, and the rest under military rule. Then, when the Israelis under Palestinian occupation elect a political leadership that has a military wing,  the Palestinians can arrest the politicians and place the Israelis under a siege.

Only when Palestinians achieve this moral bar – and it is not an easy bar to attain -- will the Israelis and their supporters be expected to recognize the State of Palestine.

In fact, their recognition of the Palestinians state will be considered a precondition for the recognition of their own state, a demilitarized state that will be established on a fraction of the historical Land of Israel.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Does the Hamas Response to Israel’s Abrogation of the Cease Fire Violate Just War Principles?

The beginning of the current round of hostilities should be dated from Israeli actions in a Gaza tunnel that resulted in the deaths of six Hamas militants. Although Israel denied responsibility, it admitted that it had carried out operations in the area that plausibly led to the incident. This was Monday night, and Hamas retaliated with rockets. A time line can be found here; thus started the current round of hostilities.

If we assume that Israel had a hand, directly or indirectly, in the deaths of the Hamas militants, that would be a serious breach of the cease fire, and, assuming that no other effective recourse was open to it, it would be permissible for Hamas to retaliate militarily, at least according to just-war theory.  It would be hard to argue that just war theory can only apply to state actors, and that Hamas, a “terrorist organization”, is not a state actor – because Israel considers Hamas to be the governing body of Gaza, and hence accords to it some of the responsibilities of a state actor. (This would be different, for example, were Hamas to be operating in the West Bank in areas under Israel’s direct control.)

The only principle I can think of that would counter this is that the Palestinians do not have a right to self-defense. I can’t think of any convincing argument for this.

So having established that the Palestinians in Gaza have a right to self-defense, and hence, to retaliate (jus ad bellum), the question would then turn to the morality of their conduct of military operations (jus in bello) And here they are on much weaker ground, since their conduct consists solely in indiscriminate rocket firing towards civilian targets.

Yet this is where the question gets interesting:  were the Palestinians to have a serious weapons capability, and were they then to fire indiscriminately then it is clear that their conduct of the operations would violate just war principles. The same would certainly be true if Hamas turned to suicide bombing. But, paradoxically, the primitiveness of the rockets, together with the Iron Dome defense, and Israel’s early warning system, has so far guaranteed few if any civilian casualties. True, there is some damage, and certainly there is the inconvenience of having to go to shelters, and the rockets make people anxious, despite the heavy odds against them being hurt. It may be irrational to buy a lottery ticket, given the odds, but people do all the time. Still, the fact that the odds  that a given person will be actually hurt by a Kassam rocket are extremely low, virtually nil, given early warning systems and Iron Dome, plus the Hamas’ militants knowledge of this fact, suggest that if this method of conduct is not just (and I don’t think it is), it is a lot less unjust than the Israeli response, which has claimed to date over a hundred lives, most of whom are civilians.  It is certainly no exaggeration to say that the Israeli public’s suffering does not compare to that of the Gazan people on any metric; the Israelis have a highly effective defense against primitive weapons, whereas the Gazans have no defense at all against highly sophisticated and deadly weapons.

So both sides are committing war crimes, but those of Hamas pales in comparison to those of Israel. And this, of course, without reference to the fact that Israel broke the cease fire. 

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The Latest Gaza Op: Groundhog’s Day? Or Frozen?

The nightmare returns. It starts with Israelis killing Palestinians, Palestinians killing Israelis, whomever.  Israel decides that it “has to” kill Hamas militants. Or it “has to” round up the usual suspects. Eventually, Hamas “has” to retaliate by sending rockets that traumatize the heck out of people but rarely injure anybody.  This annoys the hell out of Israel, which “has to” escalate by killing more militants, often senior ones. Then Hamas really sends barrages of rockets. And at the end of the day – and the night is still young – some Israelis are wounded, on very rare occasions there are fatalities,  and tens, maybe hundreds, of Gazans are killed, many of them civilians, most of them non-combatants. And the destruction in Gaza is horrific.

And the world? Well, the world reports two things: the number of rockets fired against Israel, and the number of casualties on both sides. Nobody cares that that the firepower that  hits in Gaza in a few days  is more deadly and horrific than what falls in Israel in a few years.

And, like the movie Groundhog’s Day, we condemn ourselves to repeat this ritual of death and killing periodically.  Some cynics call it “spring cleaning,” the need  to deplete periodically Hamas stockpile of weapons.  And Hamas “has to” play the game, even though they know they are going to lose, because they have to retaliate, right? I mean, they aren’t exactly a peace movement, and they can’t lose face, can they?  We wouldn’t sit still; why would they?

It is 10:30 in Jerusalem. A siren half an hour ago sent our  two grandchildren, who came to us for safety from Tel Aviv, to the reinforced room. Maybe tomorrow we’ll stay with my daughter in the South.

Netanyahu decided that we have to escalate.  I mean, we have to do something, don’t we? We can’t just sit here!

There is nothing inevitable about this. We didn’t have to kill two innocent Palestinians in May at the Beitunia protest, and then suggest that the video which captured the killing  was faked.  We didn’t have to round up Hamas political leaders and imprison prisoners released in the Shavit swap after the murder of three Jewish students, when we had grounds to believe that they were murdered. When we suspected that two members of a rogue Hebron clan were involved, and Hamas did not take responsibility, we could have kept out of Gaza. We were playing with fire when we thought up ways of undermining the Fatah-Hamas unity government.

So, as usual, we are reaping what our leaders have sowed. Sure, Hamas leaders  bear some responsibility.  But while they are safe underground, the Gazans are suffering and dying. Every hour the numbers of their fatalities will go up, until we decide that too many fatalities will just get another Richard Goldstone involved.

Remember how yesterday the whole Jewish world mourned the death of an innocent Palestinian child? Today, how many of those “mourners” give a damn about the deaths of innocent children in Gaza?

Groundhog’s Day? Or Frozen?